After Easter Mass in the Duomo in Florence, my wife and I wandered the nearby streets. We saw a mime entertaining a crowd by the Baptistery. He selected a boy and a girl about seven years old from the crowd, and brought them into the circle. He costumed them clownishly, using a long balloon to make a penis between the boy’s legs, and put hands on them to show them how to stand. The boy started to cry, and he ushered the child back to mama, with a feigned kick.
In our country I thought this might have turned into a frightening experience for the child. American parents might have overreacted and accused the performer of abuse. Here the boy has his nonno, who picks him up and gives him a hug much more powerful than whatever discomfited him. Nobody will teach him that his mental health has been threatened. The crowd will go away happy, and so will he.
People who love painting often talk in the present tense
about the figures in pictures. In Masaccio’s Pisa Altarpiece, the Virgin sits
on a carved marble throne; the Christ child sucks the fingers of his right
hand, and takes grapes from his mother’s hand with his left. Or: in Piero’s
Resurrection, one of the four soldiers is falling back in dread; the Christ
does not fly, but steps heavily from the sepulcher he is still bleeding; it has
been a near thing. This way of speaking reflects an important truth about the
pictures we use in worship. They are vital performers; they act; they have a
liturgical role of their own which completes ours.
Not much is said about this in books on art history.
Scholars dwell on materials, the evolution of technique, and perspective. Or
more lately, they talk about sociological issues, such as the status of donors,
and their probable political motivations. All these things are interesting, but
they do not get to the heart of the matter.
This is the day of days. There are dove shaped breads in all
the stores; chocolate eggs bigger than the children who will receive them. The
celebration started with a massive peal from the campanile on the stroke of
midnight. Probably the first Mass began then, for there was another such peal
shortly afterward, where the Gloria or the prayer of consecration would have
come. We left our hotel after a quick coffee, to get to the Duomo in time for
the 9:00 a.m Mass. It was raining. Arriving more than an hour early, we got a
pew about the tenth row, but we were surrounded by standees, and soon became
virtual standees ourselves.
The west doors opened with the sound of drums and trumpets.
Men in Renaissance
dress entered carrying halberds and swords, weapons that could have wreaked
real havoc. The procession ended with the archbishop, blessing the crowd
as he went. Through the doors we could see the famous carretino, two storeys high, gilded and painted, pulled into the
piazza by white oxen. This must have been done within the hour, since there had
been no sign of it when we arrived. It is loaded with fireworks. Men rigged a
wire to it from a pillar about two storeys high in the crossing.
At the Gloria a papier-maché
dove with a rocket in its belly traveled with frightful noise down the wire to
the carretino, set it alight, and
returned. By this time it was exploding with cascades, roman candles, and
flash-bombs. This lasts all through the Gloria. There are multiple hymns by the
choir. Their mouths move, but nobody can hear them. The congregation is not
here for Monteverdi or Bach, and the choir is not here to entertain tourists.
The choir addresses God no less, on behalf of worshipers who stand on the pews
with full-throated shouting and weeping. The bells of the campanile peal
throughout the consecration prayer.
People have strong feelings about forms of worship. When I
first joined the Episcopal Church, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was still
new. It elicited both joy and complaint. We still accommodate different tastes
with Rites I and II at different hours.
This is not the place to rehearse all that, but let me
venture a remark about holiday services. Undoubtedly people here and elsewhere
look forward to candle light Christmas Eve service, greens and candles lining
the center aisle, our favorite carols, children lying in their parents’ arms.
It is lovely to pour out freshly shriven into the dark night, all smiles.
My wife and I have been lucky enough to travel and worship in England and Italy. When I am in Italy I attend Mass and take Communion. I know the Church has rules against this, because I am not a Catholic. I know the arguments on both sides of the question, and I think they are all good. I take warrant from my late friend Ev Simson, who on a visit to Haiti asked the presiding clergy there whether he could take Communion. The priest asked, Did Jesus Christ bring you here? Ev answered, Yes. The priest said, There’s your answer.
My wife and I stood outside the Church of Sant’Agostino in the northern Tuscan town of Borgo Sansepolcro. It was Palm Sunday, a brilliant spring morning. It is a medieval church in a walled city, dating from the thirteenth century. This is the home town of Piero della Francesca, whose fresco Resurrection is one of the world’s great art treasures. We are strangers in the neighborhood.
—I can’t go in there.
—I don’t know what to do.
—Of course you know what to do in any church in the world. Go to a pew, kneel